Monday, June 2, 2008

The Freeman Essays--V Bernarr MacFadden teaches us how to live, and eat well, on 4 cents a day

Most of these articles deal with some form of literature. As mentioned in the article I wrote below, if we think of Bernarr MacFadden at all, we associate his name with the very cheapest of literature, if indeed, we can call it literature at all. But his Physical Culture magazines are a really fun read, and they did encourage several writers who later became quite popular. But his chief contribution--and I believe it to be substantial, is detailed in the following article.

Bernarr MacFadden Teaches Us How to Live, and Eat, Well on 4 Cents a Day.

Among the many things that is distressing about our country at this time is the obvious fact that a large percentage of its citizens are unhealthy, by anyone’s standards. This fact has led increasingly to the call for the implementation and extension of various government programs, in spite of the fact, that the government regulation, control, subsidy, promotion, and direction of the nation’s food, medicine, and medical care has led to a good deal, if not most of, the problem in the first place. In that light, it is interesting and, I believe, instructive, to speculate what the state of our nation’s health might have become had Bernarr MacFadden realized his ambition to be elected to the Senate, or even as President.

MacFadden is best remembered, if he is remembered at all, as the founder of a large publishing enterprise specializing in the "True Story" magazine genre. Many of these still carry his name in the fine print of the publishing and editorial credits. He, however, always thought of himself as a health reformer. Indeed, the idea for the "True Story" magazines had its origin in that fact that in running promotions for his health magazine, Physical Culture, he asked people to send in their stories on how they became strong, or healthy, or how they overcame physical problems. The response to these was large and interesting enough that he decided to publish a magazine devoted entirely to such stories, but the main point for him was always health.

There are at least two biographies of him that I am aware of. The earlier, and "authorized" biography, was written by his chief editor and associate, Fulton Oursler, who went on to achieve wider fame as an editor of Reader’s Digest and the author of The Greatest Story Ever Told. This biography of MacFadden, predictably, emphasizes his strengths. The other, Weakness is a Crime by Robert Ernst, follows the popular "expose" pattern with emphasis on his eccentricities and weaknesses. But with respect to his self-appointed mission to build health and strength in himself and others, both books tell the same story.

His early life is a reminder that it is sometimes better--even for children--to provide the opportunities of freedom over the security of government protection. His was not a happy childhood. Abandoned by his mother at about age eight, he stayed with and worked for abusive guardians hoping his mother would return and reclaim him. Always sickly, his guardians apparently planned to get what work they could out of him until his body was "used up" by consumption. As soon as he discovered that his mother had died, he fled his guardians and hit the road. He began working for a farm couple, who, while little better than the previous guardians, did allow him enough time off the farm to attend a local school. Once he had learned to read, his imagination was fired by the books he found at the farm. The work on the farm had improved his health to the point that he became excited at the possibility of enjoying physical health and strength. He found a book on how to build a strong body. In finding that book, he found his life’s work. From that time forward, still in his early teens, he was essentially his own man.

After years of wandering from job to job, he returned, in his late teens, to live with an uncle and aunt, whose care for him left him time to develop athletic ability. He developed this so rapidly that he was soon able to perform feats of strength impressive enough to attract audiences. This began a practice of performing public feats of physical strength and agility, beginning as a young man with wrestling and gymnastic contests and culminating in his 80's in parachuting stunts as a part of his campaign for the U.S. Senate.

He was an entrepreneur almost from his youth. His first real business venture was a linen-cleaning establishment, but he quickly decided that, having built superb health in his own body, he wanted to dedicate his life to helping others do likewise. Like most successful entrepreneurs, he also launched the careers of several others. Paul Bragg, the pioneer in the use of radio and television in promoting "Health Crusades", and Herbert Shelton, the founder of the Natural Hygiene health movement, both got their starts working for MacFadden. Charles Atlas, who won two of MacFadden’s "Strongest-Man-in-the-World" contests, used that distinction to launch a career teaching "90 lb weaklings" who had to bear the humiliation of having sand kicked in their faces and their dates taken away by muscle-bound bullies, how to build a body that would allow them to return the humiliation.

In addition to his publishing business, he started health schools, retreats, and even, a short-lived community devoted to healthful living. But my personal favorite of his enterprises came about as a challenge from his critics. He was criticized his whole life, because of his unflinching opposition to a health bureaucracy of any kind. He hated the AMA, not because he didn’t believe that doctors could, and occasionally did, do some good. He actually collaborated with medical doctors on some of his publications and invited, and used, their contributions to his Physical Culture Magazine. His hatred sprang from the fact that the AMA was using the power of government to eliminate competition. Similar attempts to bureaucratize healthcare, particularly by the Roosevelt administration also aroused his ire. But long before Roosevelt came to power; in fact, during the administration of the first Roosevelt (Teddy), he was roundly criticized for the claim that the poor would be better off if they did as he did and live off food costing only pennies a day. Since by this time he was quite wealthy, his critics claimed that this was only so much hot air. In response, he published a list of everything he ate for 3 weeks and the amount he had paid for all of the items. The total came to 84¢, or about 4¢ a day.

When the scepticism continued, he met the challenge by saying that not only could he personally live from food costing just pennies a day, but that he could feed others for that amount, pay his workers to provide the food, and still break even. To prove his point he started a restaurant in which everything on the menu was only 1¢. For a mere penny you could buy a large plate of beans, or a generous portion of cabbage salad or several other choices. In this restaurant 2¢ provided an adequate meal, 4¢ a feast. It is doubtful that MacFadden would have succeeded in this boast to break even with this restaurant, had he not used his knowledge of the human ego (he had a rather large one to assist in the study). This one-penny restaurant was placed in the basement of his building. On the main floor he had another restaurant. This one had exactly the same menu as the one in the basement, and that was made clear. The only difference was that the restaurant on the main floor had what we might call "decor". The food was served on expensive china; the utensils were real silverware; the napkins were cloth;etc. In this restaurant, the menu items that could be had for 1¢ in the basement, cost 5¢. This dual one-cent/five-cent restaurant was very popular, and to everyone’s surprise, including MacFadden’s, quite profitable; so much so, in fact, that a number of them were built. By the time of the pre-Depression depression of 1907, there were 20 of these "One-Cent" restaurants in operation. Many of them lasted until the prosperity of the 1920's made either healthful or inexpensive eating (or possibly both) unpopular.
During the Depression, MacFadden revived this experiment, but found that, despite the much-publicized bread lines and soup kitchens, people were simply not interested in inexpensive meals. They wanted government aid.

MacFadden was fanatical in his belief that health is primarily a do-it-yourself project. He acknowledged the occasional need for help from experts, but he felt strongly that it should be openly given and received without bureaucratic interference. It is interesting to speculate what might have been had his philosophy been incorporated into public policy. My own conviction is that we would probably be healthier, richer, and certainly, much freer.

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